Copper River Record 2015
By Hazel Underwood
“This...is life. This is tasting the pain, the sweat, the raw intense beauty of life. Living as a wild human, in the dirt and the stars. I love it. I hate it. It's wonderful. It's hard. But it's beyond amazing."
Words can hardly convey the vast depth of the experiences I had on my semester in the Baja peninsula with the National Outdoor Leadership School, but that paragraph begins to. It was November when I wrote that; I had just climbed out of a kayak in the harbor of Santa Rosalia on the Baja Peninsula alongside my eight expedition mates. Draped in well-worn clothes and colorful sarongs, with salt-caked skin and hair approaching dreadlock status, we Gringo children must have been quite a sight to the local Mexicans in that town. We dragged our fleet of kayaks up onto the cracked concrete and wandered into town in search of Nutella and chances to experiment with our broken Spanish.
How did I get here? Months before as I filled out the application, I looked out at the gray Alaskan spring and found it difficult to imagine myself in an adventure like that. Being accepted to the school felt akin to signing up for bungee jumping. But at the same time, it was much more than that- I knew that this opportunity was more like a doorway, and, waiting for me on the other side, was a fresh and unique perspective on this life. I was right.
However, adequately explaining to everyone exactly what I had gotten myself into proved to be a challenge. Those who knew about the school were excited and ready to share stories and advice. Those who didn’t listened eagerly, but I am not sure I explained it well enough for them to truly understand. The phrase “sailing in Baja” conjured up images of bikinis and margaritas - when in reality there were no margaritas, and instead green tea in Nalgene bottles.
This quote the National Outdoor Leadership School’s website sums up their philosophy on experiential outdoor education: “ We believe positive, ethical leaders change the world. Founded in 1965, NOLS takes students of all ages on remote wilderness expeditions and teaches them technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics. What NOLS teaches cannot be learned in a traditional classroom or on a city street. It takes practice to learn skills and time to develop leadership....We believe living in untouched places like our classrooms will teach students responsibility for all that surrounds us.” Growing up in Alaska has given me eighteen beautiful years in the beautiful outdoors. Thanks to friends, family, and WISE, I have had all sorts of unique experiences in the wilderness. But other members of my expedition were not so lucky. For some of them, the semester was their first time ever sleeping under the stars. By the end of the trip, we had all transformed into tough, tan adventurers who now felt uncomfortable under an actual roof.
Looking back on my experience with the National Outdoor Leadership School, I can only encourage every young person to consider taking part in it. It is a perfect way to begin a college career - yes, I actually earned sixteen college credits as I sat on a beach and counted hermit crabs. The school is generous with financial aid, and runs expeditions all over the world - India, Alaska, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile. Learn to kayak in wild rivers or on the ocean; become a salty sailor fluent in nautical jargon; scale the cliffs of your dreams; and so much more. But honestly, the technical skills taught paled in comparison to the interpersonal and worldly skills that we experienced firsthand. You don’t truly know someone until you have camped, cooked, hiked, swam, and worked with them for eighty uninterrupted days. And thus are born some of the strongest relationships you’ll ever know, as well as the ability to swallow your pride and jump headfirst into new experiences, no matter how strange or daunting they may seem.
At the casual graduation ceremony, held on a torchlit stone patio, my instructors told us that we would spend the rest of our lives thinking about what we had done; that we wouldn’t realize the greatest lessons until months, even years, later. Every day I’m finding this to be more and more accurate. I could go anywhere from here.
Copper River Record 2015
By Robin Mayo
In the twelve years WISE has been doing programs many of our participants in those programs have graduated and pursued careers in fields connected with the natural environment. WISE will be doing a series of articles about those graduates, how WISE may have influenced their path in life, and what it means to them.
Trevor Grams grew up in an outdoors-loving family , with the great Copper River Watershed as his extended backyard. “The Copper Valley is special. It is the place where I grew up. It helped define who I am today.” This confident young man seems equally at ease shredding the backcountry on his snowboard, or wearing a tie and speaking as valedictorian of his high school class.
Trevor grew up attending WISE programs at school, and in 2011 participated in the Copper River Stewardship Program. He had an “aha” moment when learning about the complex land management interactions in the watershed. “It made me realize how small I am, how many different interests are at work here. BLM, Park Service, Forest Service, Native Corporations, all with completely different strategies.”
In October 2013 Trevor joined a group from WISE that travelled to the WILD10 wilderness conference in Spain, and had another awakening. “It opened my eyes up to what is going on around the world, and made me realize how good we have it in Alaska. People were comparing land management strategies, citing Alaska as a good example.” Trevor was pleased to hear that the management of the fisheries in Bristol Bay and tourism in the Tongass are considered models for sustainable industries around the world. The experience in Spain also had an impact on his future plans, as he learned to think about things on a global scale.
What are those future plans? A typical college freshman, Trevor admits they change nearly every week. Officially an earth science major, he has been thinking a lot about geography and economics, both open-ended flexible subjects which deal with global issues. On the day we spoke, he’d just heard that UAF has a new 200 foot icebreaking research vessel, and he was wondering what path might get him a chance to get on that ship. Whatever he ends up doing, he wants it to have a global impact, and enable him to live in a place where he can continue to live the active outdoors lifestyle he loves. “Every time I go out in the backcountry it opens my eyes. I feel refreshed and have a better perspective on things, and it helps me stay motivated.”
When asked about the motivation, Trevor grins. “If I know I have a trip coming up, it helps me get my homework done, so I am free for the weekend.” For teenagers growing up in the Copper River Valley, Trevor advised “get after it! If you want something go for it. Opportunities may be hidden, you need to keep your eyes open.” He also acknowledged that in the long run, it is networking and connecting with people that is most important.
WISE is proud to count young people like Trevor Grams among our “Alumni.” His thoughtfulness about the world around him, and his many connections with people and the natural world will serve him well wherever his paths take him.
Copper River Record 2015
By Robin Mayo
When WISE presented our first Changing Seasons program in 2003, Emmie VanWhye was a third grader. She remembers making leaf rubbings, excited to watch the pattern of the leaf “skeleton” emerge as she rubbed with a crayon. When she was in 4th and 5th grades, she recalls going to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitors Center for Earth Discovery Day, where the recycling information and games made a big impression, especially the image evoked of discarded bottled water containers stretching to the moon and back.
In 2009, Emmie was chosen to participate in the Copper River Stewardship Program, and spent ten days with a group of teenagers from the Copper Valley and Cordova. The youngest of the group, she was initially intimidated, and worried she would not be able to keep up with the older kids. As they rafted down the Copper River, her confidence grew. The group set up camp in pouring rain, learned to row, and along the way grew in their understanding of each other and the watershed they all call home. Emmie also participated in the Copper River Stewardship Program in 2011, this time a seasoned veteran who took on a leadership role among the students. The group travelled to McCarthy and went flightseeing in a small bush plane, an experience which Emmie describes as “definitely the coolest thing I have ever gotten to do.”
Building on knowledge and experiences gained in the Stewardship Program, Emmie began volunteering at Earth Discovery Day, first as an assistant, then as lead instructor for the presentation on pollution and enviroscape. Using a model of a typical landscape, she explained the differences between point source and non-point source pollution. Colored liquids are used to show how quickly a small mess can become a big problem as it enters groundwater and river systems.
With a growing interest in the environment and pollution issues, Emmie began looking for more opportunities to learn, and her experience with WISE was a stepping stone to be accepted for programs like UAF’s Girls on Ice, and the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action conference in Juneau. After her graduation from Kenny Lake High School in 2013, Emmie went to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. She is studying Rural Development with an emphasis on Natural Resource Development. Her favorite classes are on conservation and sustainability, and after graduation she hopes to work on sustainable agriculture in Alaska. Emmie feels her experiences with WISE “helped me learn what I really like to do, and contributed to the path I chose.”
Copper River Record January 2015
By Janelle Eklund
It is January 1, 2015. A few days ago a semi-warm wind blew in carried by its own currents from warmer regions releasing thick globs of snow from heavily laden trees. Branches that once lay over passageways popped up straight as if suddenly awakening from a long sleep. Tree snow tracks made big indents around their feet. White-winged crossbills, grosbeaks and chickadees left behind spruce cone tidbits from daily feasts in the tops of spruce trees. The spruce trees are offering an abundance of cones this year and the birds are taking advantage of the bounty. I have seen more birds this year than I have in a fair amount of years. The crumbs from their pickings are scattered on top of the snow like fallen leaves of autumn.
As I reflect on the bounty the trees are giving I am grateful for the bounty of richness we have seen in Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment. In 1999 the idea of WISE was just being born. I can't believe that was fifteen years ago - how time flies! The knowledge cones on the WISE tree have multiplied over the years and many participants have flocked to the programs and joined in the feast of knowledge.
Here at WISE we are grateful for all those who are making the feast bigger and better each year: the participants, sponsors, donors, partners, volunteers, and staff. Each WISE executive director and other staff have contributed golden cones from their stash of knowledge; each sponsor and donor has provided the support to keep the feast going; each partner has brought a main dish of knowledge and support; each volunteer has given a heart of help and preparation; and each participant has absorbed the feast of knowledge to carry it forward.
In 2014 the WISE tree made leaps and bounds in feeding its mission. Executive Director, Robin Mayo Underwood completed the Foraker Certificate in Non-Profit Management. This big cone of knowledge gave her the tools to grow and nurture the organization. Donations and sponsorships increased, correlating directly to upgraded and new programs and partner participation. For a sneak preview from the annual report, total revenue for the year was $121,164 with expenses at $114,530. The Bruce James memorial scholarship fund brought in $1,400. The annual report summarizes the programs, other events and projects, new programs, capacity building, financial report, funders, and what to look forward to in 2015. View it online at www.wise-edu.org or if you would like a copy call the office at 822-3575. If you haven't received the new 'classy newsletter' you can also view it online or call for a copy.
WISE has two seats open on the Board of Directors. We are recruiting for nominations. If you are interested in throwing your nomination into the hat and joining our mission of providing science and environmental education please call the office for more information.
Thanks to all who nourish the WISE tree of life where the wise 'ol owl makes its home and the cones of knowledge keep on growing. All the best for the new year.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.